Who, How, When? Syrian Opposition Divided on UN Action

This article was published on the Interdependent on 25-01-2012

Since the outbreak of violence in Syria in March 2011, the UN Security Council has passed 60 resolutions. None of these have dealt with Syria, an issue about which the council is starkly divided. While western powers such as the United States and countries of the European Union emphasize the need for action and have themselves imposed harsh sanctions on the Syrian regime, China and Russia have resisted. In October, the latter two countries vetoed a watered-down Security Council resolution demanding UN action.

A wide view of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, at its special session on the continued violent crackdowns of anti-government protests in the Syrian Arab Republic. UN Photo/Pierre Albouy

A Russia-sponsored resolution submitted to the Security Council on January 16 drew condemnation from Western powers for not being worded strongly enough and failing to condemn the violence used by the Assad regime against protestors. “The talks in New York are intensifying. We Europeans are pushing for the UN Security Council to take a common position on Syria,” German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle said last Monday.

The very public split in New York, however, may be only the first challenge to UN action in Syria. The Syrian opposition itself is deeply divided over whether to demand UN intervention and what form international aid should take. The Syrian National Council (SNC) has repeatedly called for a UN role, but is split on whether this should involve a military component or only economic pressure. The National Coordination Body for Democratic Change in Syria (NCB), another prominent opposition group, opposes any kind of foreign involvement.

Much depended upon the results of an observer mission from the Arab League that was sent to the country in December. Over the weekend, the observers presented their report to the regional body. The League announced it would extend its mission and called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down and hand over power to his deputy. It called for talks with the opposition to begin within two weeks to form a unity government within two months. Syria has rejected the proposals and called them “flagrant interference” in its affairs.

Syrian opposition figures are also increasingly skeptical that the Arab League’s mission can bring about any change. Their stance was echoed by Saudi Arabia, which withdrew its support for the Arab League mission, stating that the killing was still continuing.

Meanwhile, some opposition members are now calling for the League to refer the matter to the UN. Colonel Riad al-Asaad, the leader of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), an umbrella group of Army deserters that claims responsibility for military attacks on the government, last week called for internationally sanctioned military and economic intervention to protect civilians. The Security Council, he said at a press conference, should “act quickly against the regime through Chapter Seven of the UN Charter to maintain peace.”

Not One Unified Voice

The idea of international intervention is controversial among the opposition groups, who are torn over whether it would help or hurt their cause. Some fear that a shift in the internal balance of power is impossible without external help; others fear that foreign involvement can spiral into a de facto occupation of the country.

The issue of foreign intervention has become a major stumbling block to uniting the two largest opposition parties. Burhan Ghalioun, president of the Syrian National Council, a shadow government formed in September, tried to merge with another opposition bloc, the National Coordination Body (NCB), late in 2011. But the proposed agreement was promptly rejected by the SNC’s executive council, mainly because of differences about foreign intervention.

Radwan Ziyadeh, the head of the SNC’s Foreign Affairs Office, has argued for military intervention, preferably under UN auspices but possibly led by NATO, for months now, despite Burhan Ghalioun having initially expressed opposition to the idea. On January 9, the SNC stated it would take its case to the Security Council and call on the international community to establish a buffer zone in Syria to protect civilians “by all legitimate means in the context of international humanitarian law, including the establishment of safety and no-fly zones.” Yesterday, that call was reiterated when the SNC announced it “will send a delegation to the United Nations to submit a letter calling for the referral of the Syria file to the Security Council to protect civilians.”

But members of the NCB are opposed to such a plan, fearing it would result in an “occupation” similar to the American presence in Iraq after the ousting of Saddam Hussein by military force in 2003. The organization is adamant that the revolution should remain peaceful and free of foreign intervention.
Within the SNC, a large faction of opposition members would prefer a peaceful revolution, but feel international action is necessary to avoid military means. Karim, an SNC-affiliated activist I met in London, argues that the UN is “very important” but only in terms of imposing sanctions on the regime. The SNC is in the process of drawing up a new list with names of businessmen who support the regime. “The main goal is to damage the president and the regime,” Karim insists.

A Divided International Debate

Complicating the debate, it’s not clear whether the UN Security Council would approve any sort of intervention in Syria, even if the opposition requested it. Russia made it clear on Tuesday that military intervention would not be allowed under auspices of the UN Security Council. “If some intend to use force at all cost…we can hardly prevent that from happening,” Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister said. “But let them do it at their own initiative on their own conscience, they won’t get any authorization from the UN Security Council.”

Under such a scenario, opposition members disagree about who they would like to see leading a foreign intervention. Riad al-Shaqfa, who leads the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and the largest bloc within the SNC, has become a proponent of one alternative to the UN and NATO: Turkey. He announced that the Syrian people would “accept Turkish intervention” but “do not want Western intervention” at a news conference in November.

Whether the Security Council can implement punitive sanctions is also in question. Again, Russia has been very clear about its opposition. “For us, the red line is fairly clearly drawn. We will not support any sanctions,” Lavrov told reporters on Tuesday. The country is putting its money where its mouth is, delivering 35 tons of weapons and ammunition to Damascus last week. Syria is Moscow’s last bastion in the Middle East, and home to a Russian naval base at Tartus.

China, which also is reluctant to support UN action, has endorsed the Arab League as the framework that should be used to solve the crisis. And the Arab League is itself divided on whether to extend its observer mission, which has been heavily criticized, or to pass the issue along to the Security Council.

Moving to the Middle?

Despite the apparent differences, Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, argues that the opposition is slowly uniting behind the idea of foreign military action—if only for necessity. “If you are talking about that you would like to protect civilians, you cannot protect civilians without foreign military intervention,” he told the Interdependent. “The opposition is coming to terms with this; the idea that this is inevitable.

“The longer the conflict continues, the more the opposition harnesses its position and develops a unified strategy” Gerges says from the Lebanese-Syrian border. He thinks the situation is spiraling into an armed insurgency. “I see this descending into a prolonged conflict, in which the outcome and the effect on Syria’s neighbors is unclear.”

Nawaf al-Bashir, a dissident tribal chief who recently fled to Turkey, agrees. “If the Security Council does not take the necessary decisions, then Syria’s revolutionaries and the Free Syrian Army will be forced to act for themselves,” Bashir said in Istanbul.

Lacking consensus of any sort, for now the UN is limited to humanitarian efforts. The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lebanon is caring for Syrian refugees who are crossing the border. It has so far registered 5,633 refugees in the north alone, although many have been deterred from fleeing by a strong Syrian army and mines along the border. At last count in November, Turkey had over 7,000 refugees.

Meanwhile, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has advised the Security Council to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court in the Hague since December. That, at least, is something the opposition can perhaps agree on.

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